SUBJECTS — Biography; Visual Arts; World/France;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Talent; Brothers; Mental Illness; Suicide;


AGE: 12+; No MPAA Rating;

Documentary; 1987; 99 minutes; Color. Available from

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For English Language Arts classes, distribute TWM’s Film Study Worksheet. Teachers can modify the worksheet to fit the needs of each class. Ask students to fill out the worksheet as they watch the film or at the film’s end.

Click here for TWM’s lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.


The visuals for this documentary include still shots of paintings by van Gogh, contrasted with footage showing the actual scenes as they appear to the naked eye. This beautiful montage shows the origins of the art of van Gogh. The narrative is taken directly from letters written by the artist to his brother Theo. Roger Ebert, in his review of this film for the Chicago Sun-Times, said that “Vincent” was “the best film about a painter I have ever seen.” We agree.


Selected Awards: None.

Featured Actors: John Hurt.

Director: Paul Cox.


This movie is visually magnificent. The narrative gives us a window into the hopes and fears of this great artist and of his attitude toward his work. Specific paintings and artistic techniques are discussed. The artist tells us, through the letters to his brother what he was trying to achieve. These letters show van Gogh to be a sincere, caring man who was committed to his art and, for most of his life, very lonely. Vincent van Gogh was supported emotionally and financially by his brother Theo.


MINOR. There are a few scenes of provocatively dressed women and pictures of women in the nude. These do not show any type of sexual activity. Alcohol use is shown, at times in raucous bar scenes. Pipe smoking is shown.


Briefly describe for your child how the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists were different than the classical painters who had dominated the art world when van Gogh was painting. See the Helpful Background section of the Learning Guide to “Mary Cassatt: American Impressionist”. Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. If your child expresses an interest sit down with him or her and go through an art book with van Gogh’s paintings in it.


Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) was one of the great artists of the 19th century. He first tried to be an evangelist, but failed, and turned to painting. He was mentally unstable, at one point cutting off one of his ears. Van Gogh eventually committed suicide.

Van Gogh wanted to express how physical objects, scenes, and people made him feel. Thus, he used vivid colors and broad brush strokes to reveal form and emotion. Find a book showing van Gogh’s paintings and show them to your child or class before, during or after watching the film. There are several sites on the Internet that contain van Gogh’s paintings. See, for example, National Gallery of Art Van Gogh Virtual Tour.

Van Gogh developed many techniques to express his feelings for people or for the world. “Starry Night” is the painting of a night sky over a village in Southern France. Van Gogh used strong colors and brush strokes so thick that the paint stands out and becomes a three-dimensional addition to the painting. Van Gogh wrote to his brother “The sight of stars makes me dream.” A person looking at “Starry Night” sees the wild night sky through the eyes of the artist.

Sometimes van Gogh would apply paint right from the tube onto the canvas and then put texture into it with his brush, or he might apply paint directly to the canvas with a knife, leaving thick ridges of paint. In his pen and ink drawings, sometimes he used a series of small marks to show us the movement of his subject. An example is the pen-transfer lithograph entitled, “In the Orchard.”

Van Gogh has been classified by art historians as a “Post-Impressionist.” The Impressionists tried to depict scenes naturalistically. The Post-Impressionists painted subjectively, communicating how the scene made them feel. Other Post-Impressionist artists were Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (see Moulin Rouge) and Georges Seurat.

Van Gogh sold exactly one painting while he was alive and lived off the charity of his brother. His paintings now sell for millions.

Vincent’s brother Theo, an art dealer living in Paris, supported Vincent throughout his life. While the van Goghs were Dutch, the center of the art world in the late 19th century was Paris. Theo was the manager of a gallery there. Vincent went to Paris and met many of the famous artists of the day.

When van Gogh was living in the South of France another of the great artists of the period, Paul Gauguin, came to live with him for a time. This arrangement ended in discord and disaster and was the occasion for van Gogh’s mutilation of his ear. See Lust for Life.


1. See Discussion Questions and Projects for Use With Any Documentary.


2. On a map show your child or class the location of the Netherlands, France, Paris, and Arles.


3. Why did van Gogh say that any man would take in a woman who was with child and who was walking the streets? How would he have reacted to the homeless that we see today?


4. Van Gogh believed that painting had the power to raise thoughts about life in people’s minds. Do you agree?



1. Describe the relationship between Theo and Vincent. Can you think of two brothers more devoted to each other?


2. What is the basis of love between brothers? Answer the question, if you can, using an example from this film.



3. What do you think was the basis of Vincent’s hatred of himself? How could he have been helped?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)


[See Questions under the “Brothers” section above.]



This Learning Guide was last updated on December 18, 2009.

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